Are there any games that nail "hacking" like subsystems?

It doesn’t have to be hacking, but cyberpunk games like Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020 are sort of infamous for this. Especially Shadowrun, which I’m the most familiar with…there are a number of characters who, once they start doing their thing, are basically playing an entirely different game, and the group just sort of has to watch them and wait for it to be over.

Interestingly, I also care a lot about PBP games these days and I think it could be good to lean into this sort of thing for PBP, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’m thinking about live play. Are there games which successfully pull of things like that? I’m curious how the Veil handles it, though given it’s PbtA, I assume it’s a power like “hack the gibsons” where you, well, either succeed miss or have complications. So I guess I’m curious if there are systems, not just for hacking, that success in having players with powers that take them to a sort of different realm/game, but do it in such a way where it doesn’t derail the game.

EDIT: then there is the question of if it is even possible? Is it desirable? If it’s possible, what are the elements that can make it distinct and interesting, but not derail things?

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It’s not exactly for hacking, but I occasionally use this move in Dungeon World for the sneaky-guy-scouting-ahead:

It hard-frames the scouting as having happened. The sneaky guy goes off and does their thing and (on a 7+) saw what there and has already made it back to the rest of the party. We don’t play out the individual scouting action. We just use their choices to flesh out what happened.

On a 6-, they either don’t come back (and then you jump to the others and say something like “it’s been too long, what do you do?”) or they make it back but with trouble in hot pursuit (and when things calm down, I maybe give the scout some info on what happened before they had to flee).

This works really well because it keeps the spotlight on the scout for a relatively short amount of table time, returning them to the rest of the group so that decisions can be made together.

It also prevents the usual shenanigans where the Thief takes a stupid risk in order to something “clever” or “devious” or to just steel something, causing the scouting action to descend into a huge suck of screen time. (You know what I’m talking about… the player who plays the Thief seems to be particularly prone to this type of poor decision making).

Finally, by framing most of the action as having happened, you can ask the scout to fill in a lot of details without technically crossing the Line.

“Okay, Ranger… a 10+? Cool. You snuck ahead and found that, sure enough, there’s an encampment of gnolls between you and the bridge. Maybe a dozen of them. Looks like they’ve been there a while. There was an overturned cart by the side of the road, probably a previous traveler that they waylaid. What options do you pick?”

“Hmm… I think I determined the biggest threat or danger. What was it?”

“Hmm. Well, I think you realized that they’ve got captives. Previous travelers probably, who got waylaid by the gnolls when attempting to cross the bridge. They’ve… not been treated well. I think you saw some of the gnolls goading them to fight or hurt each other for food. From what you’ve heard, they do that sort of thing, forcing their captives into savagery and destroying their humanity. If you leave the gnolls alone, their prisoners are in for a truly horrible end… and some of them will basically end up little better than the gnolls themselves.”

“Ugh. Okay, I’ll definitely choose to have gotten away clean then.”

“Cool, but tell me… what happened that made you decide to leave and come back when you did?”

“Oh, I think I saw one of the captives beat another one to near death for a small hunk of meat, and… well, it was just too much. We need to do something about this, y’all.”

Anyhow, I think an approach like this would work really well for any sort of “legwork” activity, like preemptive hacking.

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I think this is a pretty strong approach for a lot of games to keep the game flowing.

That said, there are a couple things to ponder…the main one for me being that I don’t love encapsulating a “big” action into a single move. This isn’t without precedent, of course, but going on recon involves a lot of sub-actions, and it feels slightly cheap to encapsulate so much into a single, simple roll. Again, it has strong benefits. But I’m always sort of balancing that convenience with, well, other sources of drama besides misses or partial hits.

In that vein, what you said about the downsides of playing out the thief are certainly true…but the upside to playing out those scenes is not to be ignored. First of all, it can be very tense and successful. Furthermore, it gives the thief character the chance to use their abilities. I suppose it comes down to how central that skill set is to the character, and if actually playing out the recon creates the opportunity for interesting narrative directions that aren’t encapsulated in the move.

So I think it’s definitely got plusses, but again, I’m wary of moves that wrap up a ton of sub moves and/or a lot of time…

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I love this, and I hope I’m not derailing the thread if I ask: How do you handle when someone wants to interact with the past, so to speak? Like, in your example above, they don’t choose that they got away clean, and when you ask, "what happened that made you decide to leave and come back when you did?”, they reply that they can’t leave those captives behind, they’ve got to do something to help “now”?

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I REALLY like the concepts Jeremy introduced here for a hacking move. If hacking is more of a focus, i don’t know enough about the hacking system but Cryptomancer is a game about cybersecurity in a fantasy world. It might be a good reference.

Another subsystem like hacking that tends to go this way in games is piloting a ship. I appreciate when games give everybody on the ship a job so everybody gets to stay in the scene.

That said, not all jobs are created equal—it’s just as boring to be nominally involved in a scene but have nothing to actually do. I think it’s The Expanse RPG, for instance, that gives everybody on the ship a station so the pilot and gunner aren’t the only ones with a “job,” but most stations don’t require other players to actually do anything besides say they’re on that station, giving the pilot a bonus. This is dull. I’d rather have to spend that time securing loose cargo or have the option to run a search for info on the other ship that might give us an edge or a way to talk our way out of a fight.

Expanding this to hacking, my question would be: What jobs could the folks have while the hacking is going on? One person on lookout, maybe, another creating a distraction, maybe another securing a way out in case things go sour, etc. I don’t think every game needs to have as regimented a turn structure as the Index Card RPG, which has players act in turn order at all times, but I think it might be a good guideline to try for in scenes like hacking, to make sure you don’t get too deep into one person’s side quest.

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The Veil doesn’t have a specific sub-system for hacking. As you say, there’s a playbook which is more or less the hacker type (with some added flavor) and they have a core move to hack stuff.

The Sprawl (another PbtA cyberpunk game, though a pretty different take on the genre) does have a series of specific moves and subsystems involved with hacking. It’s sort of a classic ‘Gibsonian’ cyberpunk take-- there’s ICE and firewalls and so on that you have to get through while ‘jacked in’ to a network.

My experience with it was pretty much the problems you’d expect/listed with this sort of thing though. The Hacker was kind of playing their own game while everyone else engaged with the basic mechanics. You can maybe avoid the ‘have everyone sit and watch the Hacker’ problem by swinging the spotlight around judiciously, but I think the bigger problem is expecting a GM to be able to engage with and memorize a whole new, sizable set of mechanics just for one player. I guess this is a ‘your mileage may vary thing’ depending on the player and GM, but it was a minor problem in our game at least.

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Uncharted Worlds is cool like this too. Every PC has a station designated for them on the ship. Pilot, gunner, communications, and hacking is a thing anyone can do.

ACCESS (+Interface)
On a 10+, credentials verified, access granted. You can now use Interface- Moves.
On a 7-9, access is granted but the owners
of the system will likely retaliate -either electronically, legally or physically.

This is not great move in my mind but also it does still give hooks for the MC on a 7-9 and does not slow down play.

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I’m not suggesting that one should always use this sort of “off screen, framed in the past” approach for hacking or scouting or whatever. Just that it’s a good option for keeping the game moving. I tend to use it a lot in my home, face-to-face games because we’ve got 6, sometimes 7 players (plus GM) and holy cow do we struggle to get anything done. Also, it’s not reasonable to expect 5 or 6 players to simply watch while another player does their own thing for an hour or so. I mean, we do that sometimes, but we try to avoid it.

If you want play out hacking or similar intrusion/infiltration scenes in detail, but don’t want a bunch of bored players, then I think you’ve basically got three options:

  • Option A: get the other characters involved, and meaningfully so. Make it a group project. The Face has to talk their way into the facility and physically deliver the package. The Heavy is in the car, playing lookout (and you better give them something to react to). The Decker is hacking into the security subsystems, opening doors for the Face and keeping attention off the Heavy. The Rigger is supporting the face with a mini stealth drone. The Brain is keeping tabs on everything from a command center, maybe juggling a call from The Boss who’s none too happy with their “initiative.”

  • Option B: Give everyone else something to do, and scene cut between characters. This isn’t significantly different than any other sort of “split the party” situation. It requires a sense of dramatic timing, enough things going on to keep everyone engaged, and players being a good sport about the fact that they might not get as much spotlight as others. I think a key bit here is to encourage in-character scenes and conversations between two or more players who are doing something “less interesting,” with you as the GM asking provocative questions or otherwise nudging things along. Meanwhile, the Hacker is in the back room making their run, or the Thief is off on their own casing the joint, or whatever.

What I’ve found, though, is that often the Hacker/Scout/whatever character wants to do these solo missions while everyone else is asleep or at camp or doing some sort of long-term, boring project (like crafting or recuperating). Which brings us to…

  • Option C: Handle it between sessions. Obviously it doesn’t always work, mostly for logistical reasons. But it’s a good way to handle stuff that frankly no one else is interested in watching on screen.
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Mostly, you let the choices they make serve as a constraint to what they were able to get done.

So, like, imagine the player chooses “You identified the biggest threat or danger” and then I tell them about those captives, and then the player’s like “there’s no way I’d leave them there… I’d try to rescue them!” I’d direct them to “you were able to sneak something out,” in this case a prisoner. “But if you do, you won’t have gotten away clean. They’ll be on guard and looking for you, you know?”

If the player tries to insist that, no really, they wouldn’t have come back, then I’d turn it around on them and say something like “Well, the move says that you did make it back to the others. So something must have happened to cause you to bug before you wanted to. What do you think could have done that?”

If they really, really insisted that they wouldn’t come back, I guess I’d tell them that they could choose to be MIA (per a 6-), and jump back to the others, asking them to pretend that their characters don’t know what was just established (not a big deal in and of itself). But I’d also warn them that they’re effectively giving me a golden opportunity, and they will likely be in a bad spot later.

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A “push your luck” game is pretty good for hacking. There are a lot of simple push-your-luck dice games you can base things off, and they resolve quickly. The main thing you’ve got to worry about is the other players being sidelined for more than a few minutes - especially if what they’re watching isn’t tense or compelling to watch.

If you’re playing physically, bringing a puzzle to the table that players can try and solve fast works well too. A simple sliding tile puzzle works well. You can also use flash cards and demand they say the right security maneuver to avoid the firewall. This puts the onus on them to memorize the answers to flash cards ahead of time, but that can be fun too - a real test of their knowledge in play. True Dungeon works this way.

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I know that @edige23 is a fan of Cryptomancer and IIRC @Chad_Walker has been known to haunt these forums…

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I’m working on a just-for-us rewrite of Cyberpunk 2020 with my brother and his friend. He asked me to write the hacking system, because I hate the one in CP2020, and he also mentioned he wanted a heist system. He also talked about the problem of having one player hacking while everyone else was getting shot at, and wanted everyone to be together and everyone to be able to help with the hacking.

So I wrote a heist system that just rolled hacking into it.

As setup, characters do stuff to earn Intel, which are points they can spend later. “I want to scour the net for information about the database we’re trying to steal.” Successful dice rolls earn +1 Intel. That kind of thing. Failures probably alert authorities to their presence and bring down the shit, so it’s not a free roll exactly.

When the group has enough Intel, based on their comfort, they start the heist.

The GM sets up the heist as a sort of environment. There’s this physical data center with security cameras and barriers and people and computer security and black ICE and all that stuff. The players move through the environment, tearing it down a piece at a time. Note that physical entry is just real-life hacking. That is, you’re hacking the guards, hacking the fence, hacking the walls, etc.

Intel earns you either a reroll on a botched roll during the heist, or lets you retroactively be smart: “Oh, I knew about the dogs, so I brought along meat to distract them.” You spend the Intel, explain how that piece of Intel applies to your situation, and reroll or retcon.

The heist is over when the group has overcome all the obstacles the GM set up and achieved their goal (or if they give up and run away).

We also gave every character an in-brain computer connected to the net and access to hacking skills. This isn’t a class-based system where only the character with the Netrunner class has any ability to deal with ICE and whatnot. Whoever is free at that moment (probably not delivering cover fire or krava-maga’ing corporate thugs) can deal with the hacking threats and walls, if they have the skills.

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There are a couple of fan-made hacks of the hacking system in The Sprawl that vastly simply it (for the better, IMO). When I eventually do a 2e, my dissatisfaction with the current hacking rules will be a major impetus.

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Thanks for writing up this explanation and defense of the scouting move, @Jeremy_Strandberg.

I think your point about saving time is a good one - it probably encourages some players to try out a single-move scouting run when they wouldn’t be willing to split the party or waste the other players’ time otherwise.

And I agree that this could be useful for a lot of hacking tasks, where you are probably trying to accomplish a specific task, and there is some risk, but you don’t need to play out a whole long separate scene of going into VR cyberspace before returning to what everyone else is doing.

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When I was designing Psi-punk, I specifically wrote the hacking rules so they could include all the characters in the party using skills everyone already had.

The short version: Ghosts (hackers with a cyberpsi ability) go into the 'Net and take others with them. Then everyone can use their own skills to do things.

  • Want to hack a billboard to display a warning? That’s Artistic.
  • Want to hack a door using a brute force attack? Melee combat.
  • Want to convince the computer you’re someone you aren’t? Manipulation.

The hacker still gets to do cool stuff with their computer skills, but that isn’t mandatory.
The other alternative is to make hacking a skill check, which Psi-punk handles through something I call psi-jacking.

  • want to hack the security cameras without going into the whole ghosting subsystem? Just roll for it and carry on.

There’s no real need to make things more complicated than they are, even if that’s how it’s always been done before.
If you’re curious, the Psi-punk SRD is available online. Here’s a link to the hacking section: http://fudgesrd.opengamingnetwork.com/psi-punk/hacking-mind-chip-and-soul/

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What about an adaptation of the labyrinth move? It has a push-your-luck aspect that you can control (spend hold to find treasure) and allows for variable length ongoing “action”.

When you hack your way through a hostile network, roll+STAT. You start with 1 access.
On a 10+ gain 1 access and control over a subsystem of the GM choice;
On a 7-9 gain 1 access and choose 2:
On a 6- lose 1 access and choose 1:

  • You don’t draw the attention of the security system
  • You don’t leave traces that could be used to get intel on you later
  • You don’t compromise this terminal / channel

At any point in time you can spend:
1 access to logout without compromising things further.
2 access to gain control of a subsystem of your choice (other than the goal).
X access (GM decides) to get to the goal.

Having to engage with the move multiple times allows for spotlight management. There is also space to allow failures and partial successes to impact the physical space the other characters are supposedly navigating and vice versa.

The GM should look for opportunities to offer the hacker something he personally craves in exchange for some of the access hold gained, like a chance to erase or forge evidence, transfer credits to their account, etc…

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Sorry to quote myself, but I just realized the online SRD is still in kind of a rough format and the above link doesn’t take you to the other part of the hacking system I referenced, in which you “ghost” into the 'Net.

Here’s that link:
http://fudgesrd.opengamingnetwork.com/psi-punk/when-worlds-diverge/

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I say this totally genuinely: I love how often you can say “what about an adaptation of the labyrinth move?” For any kind of high level progressive action like this =P

On a related note, I was noodling around recently with using a labyrinth move to simulate a high level mass-combat move, like playing out the back and forth between armies in a battle. I ended up deciding not to include any sort of mass combat mechanic anyway, but I still think it could work if you were so inclined.

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It is very versatile indeed. It’s also kind of sneaky: it presents itself as an innocent move with hold but actually introduces a clock along with the rules to manipulate it.

Also you could rewrite almost any move like that. You could rewrite a melee fight move to incorporate a clock with the same format and it becomes a really cool duel move. Start at 3 upperhand, at 6 you draw first blood and win, at 0 you lose. Spend upperhand along the way to humiliate the opponent or impress someone in the audience.

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